With plain language and open emotion, Biden urges shaken nation to regain its footing in wake of divisive president

Susan Page, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was inaugurated as the nation's 46th president Wednesday, standing on the steps of the Capitol that a mob had stormed two weeks earlier trying to overturn his election.

That's remarkable, but this may be more so: The failed insurrection isn't the biggest challenge he now assumes as commander in chief.

At age 78, after a lifetime in politics and three presidential bids, Biden moves into the White House during a deadly pandemic, one that forced the inaugural balls to be canceled and the swearing-in ceremony to be a masked and much smaller affair. Amid the economic repercussions of COVID-19, millions have been thrown out of work, many of them now at risk of eviction or hunger.

And he follows the most disruptive president in American history, one who has left a political divide so deep that it draws comparisons to the Civil War 160 years ago. One so willing to smash political norms that he became the first outgoing president since that war to boycott his successor's swearing-in.

"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal," Biden said in an emotional inaugural address.

Because of the pandemic, the National Mall that stretched before him was filled not with cheering supporters but with American flags, snapping in a brisk wind. "We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts."

Biden's exhortation was less a reach for the stars above than an effort to help the nation regain its footing on the ground.

His 21-minute speech used mostly plain-spoken language, not soaring rhetoric. Twice, he referred to his audience as "folks," his favored colloquialism. There was no oratory to challenge John Kennedy's most memorable line at his inauguration: "Ask not what your country can do for you." It was as much fireside chat as formal address.

'Unity is the path forward': Read President Joe Biden's inaugural address

Biden did note the issues that will be his priority: battling the coronavirus, addressing climate change, pursuing racial justice. Though he is the president with the longest tenure in Congress of any, he didn't offer a laundry list of legislation. He didn't call for passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package or of his proposal to provide a path toward citizenship for the "Dreamers," those young people brought to the United States illegally when they were children.

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To be clear, those are proposals he hopes to push through a closely divided Congress. As dusk was falling Wednesday night, he dived into some of his priorities when he went to the Oval Office for the first time as president to sign a series of executive orders, some of them reversing the executive orders of his predecessor on immigration and the environment.

But the message in Biden's inaugural address was more about values than policy.

"I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days," he said, acknowledging the skepticism of many about whether common ground can still be found in a capital routinely riven by partisanship and frozen in gridlock. Even so, he called it the only way forward.

"We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors," he said. "We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos."

GOP lawmakers react: They applaud Biden's call for unity, even after some opposed his victory

Inaugurations are often moments of sharp breaks from one administration to another. In 2009, Barack Obama offered a stinging rebuke of George W. Bush for his handling of the economy and his decision to invade Iraq. In 1981, Ronald Reagan promised to turn the nation in a decidedly more conservative direction.

But no modern inauguration has featured a contrast sharper between one administration and the next than this one.

That sense of fundamental change was reinforced by the inauguration as vice president of Kamala Harris, a groundbreaker who became the first woman and first woman of color to be elected to national office.

Madam vice president: Kamala Harris steps into history as first woman of color to hold the office

It was apparent, too, in the differing world view, and approach to government, of a President Trump and a President Biden.

In his inaugural address four years earlier, Trump had previewed the defiant, even apocalyptic rhetoric that would be his signature, bringing a look of revulsion from outgoing first lady Michelle Obama and a shocked expletive from George W. Bush.

"The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer," Trump had declared, describing a nation beset by poverty, rusted-out factories, violent gangs and illicit drugs. "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

Biden's image of America was of a nation that has problems but is fundamentally resilient, even when he referred to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. "A riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground," he said. "It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever."

The ceremony ended with a poem about reconciliation. "Somehow we've weathered and witnessed / A nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished," the 22-year-old poet, Amanda Gorman, read.

Biden took pains to make an explicit appeal to the Americans who didn't support his election. That is likely to be a continuing campaign, given that seven in 10 Republicans told a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll last week that they didn't believe he had been legitimately elected.

But he never mentioned Trump by name.

The feeling was apparently mutual. Trump hadn't mentioned Biden's name, either, as he spoke to a small crowd at Joint Base Andrews before he left town a few hours earlier, heading to his Florida retreat in his final ride aboard Air Force One. Trump had wished the next administration "luck" and bragged that he had left it a "foundation" that would foster its success.

"We will be back in some form," he said without elaboration.

When he finished, some of the TV networks showed a split screen. Trump and his family were seen boarding the plane on one side as a sound system on the tarmac blared Frank Sinatra singing "My Way." On the other side, Biden and his family were shown leaving Blair House to attend Mass at St. Matthews Cathedral before going to the Capitol for the inauguration.

Afterwards, the screen was no longer split. It is Biden's presidency now.

Presidential legacy: How Donald Trump will be remembered after four tumultuous years as president

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden uses inaugural address to urge unity after riot, amid covid